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Jan 1, 2014

The Place to Be: Sainte Maure

THE STORY:

If you're looking for Paris' Times Square equivalent to ring in the new year, head to the Champs Elysées, which gets all gussied up for the Christmas season (lights, markets, ice skating rinks, and enormous crowds) and then really lets loose on New Year's Eve.

 
 

But if you, like us and our friends, would do almost anything to avoid huge crowds and drunken twenty-somethings groping each other on this very special night, then maybe you should be here with us. We throw a rather last-minute party, planned out only over the course of the past few days, because some of our local friends tell us that the pedestrian bridge between the two isles -- the one our apartment overlooks -- is a lovely place to meet up with people and toast at midnight. One of our guests, who has MS and is too tired to go down to the bridge, gets to spend New Year's Eve (which happens to be her wedding anniversary) with her husband on the balcony, overlooking the madness.


There are illegal fireworks set off over the Seine around midnight, and we are out there toasting with champagne. Our girls and their friends are running around, chasing each other and having a blast. A group of young teenage boys sees us with plastic cups, champagne glasses, and a bottle and asks for some. I feel so American and prudish saying "no" but even the French parents we are with are shaking their heads. Somehow, this fact makes me feel both better and worse: better in that I feel less like I am a prudish American, but worse in that I feel more like a stodgy middle-aged parent.

We have a half dozen families, with kids, and fully expect to get the children, especially the younger ones (3-6 years old), to sleep well before midnight in a slumber party on the floor of the girls' room. But surprise, surprise, these are children being raised in Europe, and they have no problem staying up till 2am! OK, I exaggerate but only in one tiny respect: The three-year old starts to fade around 1am and is taken home in the arms of her father (awake, but at least tired). Pippa falls asleep during the bedtime story just after 2am, but one of her adorable seven-year old friends who is sleeping over asks for me to read her more books.


 
We welcome new friends, and even newer friends, and even some friends of friends, and I can't say I've enjoyed a New Year's Eve more in years. Great wine and champagne, Just Dance competitions on the Wii (Gigi is the undisputed champion), and the table is laden with delicious food. That includes chocolate chip cookies I've made, knowing they are not a very elegant food but that they will be a big hit with Americans, French, young and old alike. I serve hors d'oevres, snacks, patés, desserts, and a whole host of finger foods. But the pièce de résistance is the cheese platter.


One of our guests, Agnes, has completely outdone herself in bringing a selection: clockwise from the dark square in the lower left: Brin d'Amour, Comte Fruite, Persille de Montbriac, Trappe Echourgnac, and Brillat-Savarin. I'm sorry to say it, but this makes the cheese platter that was at your New Year's Eve party look like Velveeta and Cheez Whiz.

THE CHEESE: Sainte Maure

Not to be confused with the more elegant Sainte Maure de Touraine upon which it is based...


Sainte Maure is a goat's milk cheese made industrially, with milk gathered from anywhere within France, not just from Touraine. And this supermarket cheese is white on the outside, not ashed.

 

It's on the thick and creamy side, but young enough that there's only crust on it. There's just a tiny bit of resistance on the knife at the outer edge, then it slides right through. It's got a mild, goat flavor that is not too far away on the spectrum from a Philadelphia cream cheese -- just goatier.

THE CONNECTION:

Rather than go for the obvious, and link today's post to one of the cheeses on the platter, I want to tell you about one of the hors d'oeuvre I serve my guests. It's a personal favorite: bacon-wrapped, goat-cheese stuffed dates.


Except that I can't easily find slices of bacon here in France, just tiny chunks, so I go with bacon-topped instead of wrapped (though I must admit wrapped is lots prettier). It's a simple recipe, if you can even call it a recipe, and one that is highly adaptable: dates or prunes and I bet apricots would taste fine, too; bacon or pine nuts or both or something else altogether; and virtually any kind of creamy goat cheese or even cream cheese in a pinch. Just take the pit out, replace with goat cheese to taste and top, or wrap. Yum.


It's not worth buying an expensive goat cheese, as the taste will be somewhat masked by the strong date and bacon flavors. So head to your local supermarket aisle (yes, even in the States) and grab just about any log of goat cheese to make this treat.

Happy 2014 and a Bonne Année to all!

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